Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Device Reveals Invisible World Teeming with Microscopic Algae

It just got easier to pinpoint biological hot spots in the world’s oceans where some inhabitants are smaller than, well, a pinpoint.

Microscopic algae are called phytoplankton and range from one to hundreds of microns in size – the smallest being 1/100th the size of a human hair. But as tiny as they may be, communities of the phytoplankton south of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, are big players when it comes to carbon: They take up 50 percent of the carbon dioxide going from the atmosphere into the oceans there.

“We thought that had to be a mistake at first,” says Francois Ribalet, a UW post-doctoral researcher in oceanography and lead author of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper on the discovery published online in September.

“They are such small cells to do so much,” he says.

Phytoplankton, like plants on land, take up carbon from carbon dioxide during photosynthesis to build cells. Phytoplankton anchor the oceanic food web so where one finds a lot of phytoplankton, one usually finds a healthy collection of fish and animals. If not eaten, phytoplankton die and sink, carrying their carbon with them. Worldwide, ocean phytoplankton consume as much carbon dioxide as the Earth’s forests and land plants combined.

“Being able to readily detect and track blooms of these small-celled phytoplankton is critical for understanding their impact in the oceans and global carbon cycle,” Ribalet says.

SeaFlow, a device being developed at the UW, is making that task easier, he says. The instrument is a flow cytometer that measures the size and pigment composition of each single phytoplankton present in a sample at a rate of thousands of cells per second.

Typically biologists with traditional cytometers looked for phytoplankton using tablespoon-sized samples of water collected 10 to 50 miles or more from each other.

SeaFlow can sample seawater continuously making it possible to analyze samples every three minutes or two samples per mile traveled, says Jarred Swalwell, a research engineer with oceanography and lead developer. That’s because the instrument taps into the system found on board most oceanographic research vessels that supplies running seawater to shipboard labs for such things as keeping specimens alive.

In this way SeaFlow collects more samples in a day than most scientists gather on an entire cruise, Swalwell says. And SeaFlow sensors and banks of computers, not scientists with traditional cytometers and microscopes, sort the characteristics of phytoplankton communities to determine what’s present.

SeaFlow takes five minutes to do what used to take him two months, Ribalet says.

A prototype of the device revealed the biological hotspot off Vancouver Island and, for the first time, a marine ecotone, something oceanographers knew must exist but had no way to locate before now.

Ecotones are where different habitats overlap, where a prairie and forest meet, for example, or a river and estuary intersect. Ectones are rich with species because plants and animals from both ecosystems might be found there, as well as those adapted specifically to this hybrid environment. The ecotone discovered by Ribalet and colleagues is a 40-mile-wide region where ocean water rich with nitrates met coastal water rich with iron and where not just one, but five oceanic phytoplankton communities were detected taking full advantage of the carbon and nutrients concentrated there.

“This was just unexpected diversity,” Ribalet says. “It flies in the face of the textbooks.”

Ribalet and Swalwell imagine additional marine ecotones and biological hot spots could be detected if SeaFlows were installed on various ships and set up in a way to automatically alert scientists when phytoplankton abundance takes an interesting turn. Just such a SeaFlow set up has already been permanently mounted on the UW’s vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson.

Other co-authors on the paper from the UW are professor of oceanography Virginia Armbrust, research scientist Adrian Marchetti, doctoral research assistants Katherine Hubbard and Colleen Durkin, and research engineer Rhonda Morales; Kristina Brown and Philippe Tortell from University of British Columbia; and Marie Robert from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The work was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Environmental Health and Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For more information:
Ribalet, 206-221-7258,
Swalwell, 206-221-7258,
SeaFlow homepage:
YouTube: Census for the very small
The colors red, orange and yellow indicate marine areas with abundant microscopic algae, some of which would have gone undiscovered using typical discrete sampling methods. The biological hotspot depicted in the North Pacific in this video, for instance, was between places the ship stopped to sample. It was revealed only because of new UW technology able to continuously sample and quickly analyze seawater while a ship is underway.

Video credit: Francois Ribalet

Sandra Hines | Newswise Science News
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Strong, steady forces at work during cell division
20.10.2016 | University of Massachusetts at Amherst

nachricht Disturbance wanted
20.10.2016 | Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

NASA's MAVEN mission observes ups and downs of water escape from Mars

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>